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Tree Full of Robins

Dear Bird Folks,

The other day my yard was full of robins. I grew up in Brookfied, MA, and robins were always a sign of spring. Why are they here in January? Are they lost, did they forget how to migrate or does it mean that we are going to have an early spring? What’s the deal?

Tom, Brewster


Hi Tom,

Brookfield? Oh, I’ve heard of Brookfield. Isn’t that one of those inland towns that still has occasional sightings of Big Foot? Winters are a lot different in Brookfield than they are in Brewster. The “deal” is that robins are on Cape Cod every January and February too. Cape Cod is an important wintering area for them. There are many reasons why robins avoid Brookfield in the winter and choose the Cape instead. And it’s not just because we have indoor plumbing here either.

Although not always, most of the time the Cape is spared much of the snow and ice that most inland communities get. In addition, the Cape seems to have a good supply of both natural and cultivated berries that the birds feed on. It is doubtful that birds that you are seeing now are the same ones that were in your yard last summer. More likely, they are birds from northern New England and Canada. They seem to move in waves of nomadic flocks, looking for food. A flock may stay in your yard for a day or two and then push on, only to be replaced with another flock a few days later. Yesterday, I had an least 80 robins chowing down the cedar berries on the trees just outside my window. This morning I haven’t seen any. There are still plenty of berries, but yesterday’s flock was too restless to stay in one place. You probably noticed that the robins you saw weren’t the calm, friendly birds that we see on our lawns in the summer. Wintering robins are very skittish and restless. They appear to be very unsettled, ready to move on in a second’s notice. Kind of like a starting pitcher for the Red Sox.

There is little that we can do for these nervous, espresso-filled robins. They will occasionally take fruit, especially water-soaked raisins. But what they really like is our birdbaths. Anyone who keeps a birdbath going all winter long will almost always have a steady stream of robins stopping by. Also, you can plant bushes and shrubs that produce berries. Robins love holly berries and they used to like pyracantha berries too. But the nursery folks have created a variety that the birds won’t eat. Hrrumph! When choosing berry producing plants, you may want to ask or read the tag first. And as an added bonus, berry trees will also attract other birds like waxwings, mockingbirds and bluebirds.

There you go, Tom. The good news is that here on the Cape we get to see robins every month of the year, not just in the summer. The bad news is that, for you, robins are no longer a sign of spring. So put your Bermuda shorts back in the drawer for another few weeks and wait for the Cape’s signs of spring. You’ll know that it’s spring here when the alewives arrive at the herring runs, the ospreys return to their huge nests and the Irish girls are back working the cash registers at Stop & Shop.